Washington At a Black History Month luncheon last February, Brig. Gen. John S. Cowings, a black U.S. Army commander based in Germany, quoted a lyric from a Broadway musical to explain why blacks are proud to be in the military: "I ain't saying I'm better than anyone else, but damn if I ain't just as good."
If fighting breaks out in the Persian Gulf, black Americans -- about one of every four U.S. front-line combat soldiers -- will have yet another chance to prove they're "just as good." For blacks, the opportunities to die for their country are better than ever.
Figures released by the Army early this month show that blacks, who constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population, now make up 20 percent of the U.S. combat infantry worldwide, 24.5 percent of the combat armor and tank units and 36.8 percent of combat artillery crews. While no racial breakdown of the forces assigned to the gulf are available, officials said Army personnel there are representative of the service as a whole.
During the Vietnam War, blacks accounted for 12.6 percent of all U.S. forces deployed to Southeast Asia but 17.8 percent of the Army personnel stationed there, Defense Department figures show. Between 1961 and 1973, the percentage of blacks in the civilian population was 10.8 percent, the Census Bureau reported.
The looming threat of a Persian Gulf war -- and the prospect of heavy U.S. casualties -- has touched off an emotional debate about the merits of an all-volunteer U.S. military that draws young recruits disproportionately from blue-collar families and minority households, most often with promises of a job, a skill or college tuition. Many recruits enlist because there are few opportunities to prove themselves in business, education or any other significant sector of American society.
This is what more than one military expert has called a "devil's bargain," in which the nation offers young men and women economic incentives and opportunities for social advancement in return for their commitment to fight and, perhaps, die in battle. Edwin Dorn, a black scholar at the Brookings Institution and a military specialist, observed that blacks, women and the poor of all races would not have to accept this bargain if the nation were strongly committed to improving education and employment opportunities for all Americans.
"If you want to alter the composition of the force, you have to change the alternatives," Mr. Dorn said.
Today, some arguments that haven't been heard since the Vietnam era are surfacing anew, among them that blacks and working-class Americans will become "cannon fodder" in the desert, or that these young men and women are unwitting victims of an "economic draft" because they have no other way to get ahead.
There also is some public sentiment -- none of it coming from the Pentagon or White House -- for resuming conscription in case of war to assure that front-line soldiers represent a broader slice of society. Some members of Congress also have questioned whether a draft will be needed to provide replacement troops if a prolonged war saps the military of much of its current strength.
"What I worry about is that today, the people who are making policy are totally dislocated, in a human way, from the people who are out there," said James H. Webb Jr., a decorated Marine Corps veteran and former secretary of the Navy.
Columnist Mark Shields, scornful of the "chicken hawks" who have never heard the sound or smelled the stench of death on the battlefield and yet appear to be spoiling for a war, said last month, "If this war is worth Americans' fighting and dying for, then it must first be worth calling to service the sons of anchormen and of senators, of Cabinet members and college presidents, of columnists and CEOs."
But whether a draft would bring fairness and a vast improvement in the military's demographics is doubtful, unless steps are taken to keep those with money and influence from avoiding a draft, as they did with great success during the Vietnam War.
The Bush administration has refused to enter this political minefield, with top officials, including President Bush, insisting they have no desire to revive the draft. History shows that the last two times a draft was instituted while a bloody, drawn-out war was already well under way -- World War I and the Civil War -- opposition to military service and the war escalated dramatically.
"Vietnam would be viewed as a picnic if they brought in a draft after war started in the Persian Gulf," said Charles C. Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University. "The anti-military movement must pray every night for the return of the draft."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has defended the current volunteer system as the result of a national consensus to end the draft in 1973. "As a matter if equity, it was decided in the early '70s that we should only ask people to serve in the military who wanted to serve in the military," he said recently.